Axiom - February 2000
Life on a Delay Loop - Alex Taylor
(page 5/18)

Life on a Delay Loop

The day started ordinarily enough. Ordinarily enough for Harry to feel more than a little jaded. As far back as he could remember clearly his life had been on one level. No ups, no real downs, no problems and absolutely no real joy. It had not always been like that. Back in the dim recesses of his childhood memories he could recall a time when life had seemed somehow more vivid. The bad times made the good ones seem better when juxtaposed, as they often were.

Not any more, however.

He was unmarried, thirty and a court clerk. His day to day duties included the riveting tasks of swearing people in and keeping records of all cases handled. As he pulled out into traffic he tried to remember the last time something happened to him that he could classify as being anything other than entirely neutral, from the point of view of happiness.

Arriving at the court building, he parked in his usual spot, collected his papers and stepped inside. The first case of the day commenced.

It was an open and shut affair. The defendant was a short-haired man of about 25 who was charged with auto theft. He would probably get a medium jail sentence, he thought.

As the verdict of the jury was read, Harry felt suddenly dizzy and a roaring started in his ears. His vision was blurry, but he half-heard the defendant shouting and definitely heard the three shots which followed.

He caught a glimpse of the man, slumped across the desk, his short hair now matted with blood, a pool of which was spreading out from under his chest.

Harry stood, holding a nearby rail for support. He breathed deeply and shut his eyes, trying to shake off the dizziness. "That's working," he thought. The sound in his ears began to subside, which was when he noticed how quiet it was.

He realised, looking around, that he was the only person standing, and all eyes were on him. Quickly, he looked back to the defendant. He could not comprehend what he saw. There was no blood, no corpse, just the same man, standing silently, awaiting his sentence.

Harry sat down, too hard. The judge gave him a sideways glance and continued.

Harry's mind was no longer on the case. Distracted, he almost forgot to enter the sentence and close the record. A recess was called. Harry headed straight for the men's room, regaining his composure.

What had just happened to him? He had felt very ill for a few seconds, which must have combined with general tiredness to make him see things, he rationalised. Maybe the flu had not entirely left him.

As he looked at his reflection in the mirror above the pristine white basin, he realised that this explanation would have been enough to make him forget the whole thing, if it was the first time it had happened. But it was not.

Two months ago while walking through a park uptown, he had thought he heard someone behind him call. He stopped, turned around and saw three youths step towards him bearing knives. As he turned to run, he had felt the same illness he had recently experienced in the courtroom. When it passed, he looked back around and saw only three men in business suits, who gave him rather odd stares as they walked on by.

At the time he had put it down to a trick of the light, but now looked back on the incident differently.

Both times something was about to happen to him that was unpleasant. In the first case, he would have been mugged. In the second, he would have witnessed a brutal and bloody murder. In each case, the event had stopped dead in its tracks.

A cold fear gripped Harry's mind, as if he was about to stumble upon something he might not wish to know. A single thought formed in his mind, a clear plan of action revealed to him in an instant. Was it possible that the reason nothing really good or bad had happened to him recently was that something wasn't letting it happen?

There was a way to test. Harry knew it. He had to do something unpleasant to himself. He brought his fist back and hesitated, briefly, before slamming his knuckles straight into the mirror before him. As his hand flew through the air he felt the dizzy sensation once more. When he came to his senses, he saw that the mirror was indeed cracked. Was he wrong, after all? Far from it, he realised, as he felt his hand. No pain, not even a slightest twinge. Some small pieces of glass had fallen into the basin, so he tried again. He rubbed his hand around in the shards, fighting the dizziness. When he examined his hand there were no cuts. Impossible, he thought. Picking up a piece of glass, he saw that the edges were entirely blunt and rounded. The others were all the same.

That was it. In one morning his life had been changed utterly. Nothing could be taken at face value anymore. Something was altering his perception. Could he now walk out of the men's room and continue with his life? For now, what else could he do? He looked in the shattered mirror one last time and turned around.

To face grey emptiness.

He span around to his original facing.

Nothing. He was alone in a featureless grey void. Looking down at his feet, he saw that he was standing on some kind of smooth surface, which stretched out as far as he could see. It was difficult to differentiate it from the rest of the milky greyness.

"Good morning, Harry." The voice had come from behind him, so he turned once more. Standing perhaps ten feet away from him was a man of about thirty. Harry could find no words, and so simply waited for the man to continue.

"Perhaps you could help us. What was it that made you realise, specifically. Was it a combination of many factors, or solely the incident today?"

Harry found his voice, barely. "What... where is this?" he croaked, through a suddenly dry throat.

"Nowhere at all, really. Not yet. I'm afraid your discovery has necessitated your moving. We have a place for those who have realised."

The man saw Harry's suddenly concerned face. "Oh don't worry, you'll be perfectly comfortable. We work only for your best interests, after all."

Harry's mind was struggling to kick back in, given the enormity of the concepts he was being presented with.

"Here. This way". The man gestured in a direction which seemed to Harry to be no different from any other. They walked into the greyness, Harry slightly behind the other man. "So, was it today's incident or the cumulation of many factors?"

Harry considered his response. "If I tell you, I want the full explanation of what's going on," he demanded.

"That's hardly a problem. After all, where you're going everyone knows anyway.

"If it wasn't for today, I wouldn't have realised for a long time, possibly never."

The man pulled out a small device from his pocket and tapped a key. "Thank you. And my name is William, by the way. William Ferman. It's my job to try to make sure our service is better in the future so that fewer people will experience the troubles and concerns you have just faced".

"I said the full explanation."

"Its really very simple. You'll learn it all for yourself when you meet the people you'll be living with."

Harry was resigned to whatever they had planned for him. After all, where could he run if they could bring him to this void as they fancied? William continued.

"Life is unpleasant. Horrible, in fact. Violent, depraved, nasty and brutish. Full of dangerous places and dangerous ideas. I work for the people dedicated to safeguarding standards of morality and decency. We want people to be able to live the way they used to. For that reason, it was decided some years ago, that the existing censorship board be expanded in its duties to encompass all areas of life."

Shock was written across Harry's face.

"Oh no, we can't completely control your reality. Far from it, in fact. We can't control memories at all; it has to be done in real time. All we have is a few automatic alteration systems and a manual editing suite for the trickier occurrences. For quite a while now the world has been on a delay loop. It gives us the few seconds we need to set up alterations if it looks as if something unacceptable is going to happen."

Now Harry understood. His childhood memories came flooding back, rich and vivid in their colours. He remembered the awful pain of a broken arm, but also the true joy of setting off on an early, forgotten holiday.

"But you must be editing for more than just violence! What about the really good times, why have they been removed too?"

William was impassive in voice.

"Just think about it. If you experience something really good, then the time immediately after it seems worse than it would have. So much pain is caused by the removal of an accustomed happiness. As the good times always come to an end, it was decided to edit out anything which would cause unhappiness when it ended. It is much better for mankind to live on one emotional level. Mental change and emotional upheaval can only lead to pain and unpleasantness."

"I don't care!" said Harry in a near shout. His anger had welled up as William had spoken.

"I want all of my life. The bad times and the good. Give me weeks of pain for one day of joy. How can you justify keeping mankind wrapped in wool, ignorant of what life is really like?"

"Censorship has always existed. It's hardly a new idea, Harry. It's always been around and it's always been necessary. There must be people to ensure that the public are not corrupted by dangerous outside influences and unsuitable moral standards. Offensive and violent situations cannot be allowed to be a part of the public's life. For the good of everyone."

William stopped walking. Harry looked around, but could see no difference between here and anywhere else around him.

"I'm afraid we're almost here. Its time for you to leave this place and join the others. They're all people like you, people who have realised. Our failures, if you like. We learn a few new things from every case. Every time we get better, and the cuts become less evident. We do apologise that out service was not thorough enough in your case."

"Wait, you can't do this", started Harry, before realising he had no idea what else to say.

William began to step backwards. "We really have no choice. As I said, you'll be comfortable. Meanwhile, the data from your case will be analysed and used to improve our systems, both automatic and manual. And one day, no one like you will ever be troubled in ways such as this."

William Ferman left as smoothly as he had arrived. Harry was alone in the void for a few seconds before he heard a sound behind him and turned to find himself in a new place.

Alex Taylor